Former longtime Economist correspondent Fawcett (co-author: The American Condition, 1982) charts the versions and vagaries of liberalism from the 1830s to the present.
The author focuses on the United States and Western Europe in this comprehensive, quirky, scholarly and personal exploration of one of the dominant ideas in political discourse. Although he writes that this is a “historical essay for the common reader,” his notion of that character seems a bit hopeful. Fawcett’s text is thick with quotations and with names that do include many notables (such as James Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson) but also numerous others familiar principally to political philosophers. Oddly, the author includes no endnotes and only a “works consulted” list, a disservice to those who are not “common” readers and would like to know more about the figures he discusses. Cavils aside, this is a phenomenal work of research and synthesis, generally positive, even admiring in tone. The author gives his working definition of “liberalism” in the preface (identifying four key ideas), then focuses on four historical periods when the idea of liberalism underwent stress, redefinition or modification: 1830–1880, 1880–1945, 1945–1989, 1989–the present. In each section, Fawcett surveys what the principal philosophical thinkers and writers were saying and shows us some of the activities and attitudes of various prominent politicians of the time. Readers may be surprised to see some kind words for Richard Nixon (“the Hidden Liberal”) and to read that the author believes LBJ was brighter than JFK (“The Johnson years…were a historic achievement in the search for an acceptable liberal order. Decades later its essentials were still in place”). Fawcett devotes lots of attention to (among others) Friedrich Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, Michael Oakeshott and John Rawls. Liberalism, he writes, is now in a period of transition.
A pool of profound, rigorous research and thought that has no shallow end.